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Read-alouds (finally) get face-to-face

Pioneer Partners sees high school students back in their elementary alma maters to read to students

East Grand Rapids – For senior Lucy Cavanaugh doing a read-aloud at her elementary school alma mater was more than just a fun homecoming. She said it also reinforced her aspirations for a career working with young people. 

Lakeside Elementary fourth-grade teacher Holly Goodnight

Cavanaugh was at Lakeside Elementary to read “Hunter’s Best Friend at School” to Holly Goodnight’s fourth-graders, and over the course of half an hour she read, asked questions, got lots of fourth-grade feedback and even split the class into discussion groups led by her and sophomore Maya Reifinger.

“This reading program was not around when I was in elementary school,” she said. “But other clubs that promoted kindness and ending bullying came to visit, and I always thought it was so cool when the older kids came to visit. I’ve always known I love working with kids. But honestly, this program has made me realize that I want to work with kids in my future career.”

She and Maya and more than 100 of their high school peers visited Breton Downs, Lakeside and Wealthy elementaries this winter for the read-alouds as part of a newer program called Pioneer Partners.

Pioneer Partners began in February 2020 when Katie McIntosh, then the district literacy coach (now assistant principal at the middle school), was asked to prepare students in the Leadership in Youth Development program to read to elementary students.

“It was going to be a way for our older students to give back to their community and engage with the younger generation,” she said.

Students in Holly Goodnight’s fourth-grade class listen to a read-aloud

A Thrill to Be Back in Person

And then came COVID. In 2020, just one read-aloud took place, and in 2021, students recorded their read-alouds to be played in elementary school classrooms on video monitors.

Tim Saunders, the district’s elementary instructional coach and new head of Pioneer Partners

That’s why Tim Saunders, the district’s elementary instructional coach and new head of Pioneer Partners, said it was a thrill to finally see the high school students in classrooms, reading books to their younger peers.

Lucy agreed.

“Last year we sent videos of us reading, but it was not nearly as fun as actually going to the elementary schools,” she said. “I love kids, and it is just so fun to talk and learn with them.”

Saunders admitted that as a lifelong educator, he might have some ulterior motives when it comes to Pioneer Partners.

“Our high school students hopefully get a chance to experience the power of being seen as a role model, and I hope a few are moved by this experience enough to consider a career as an educator,” he said. “I know for a fact that many of them would be excellent teachers.”

Putting Training Into Practice

Prior to the school visits, Saunders led training sessions for the high school students, where they practiced effective read-aloud techniques. He also gave them classroom management tips about showing enthusiasm, offering praise, recognizing positive behavior and setting guidelines.

‘I’ve always known I love working with kids. But honestly, this program has made me realize that I want to work with kids in my future career.’

– East Grand Rapids senior Lucy Cavanaugh

Lucy said those training sessions proved to be very helpful.

“Mr. Saunders helped us learn how to prepare and successfully present a story to a class,” she said. “He taught us about asking open-ended questions and clarifying parts of the book that may be tricky. He taught us how to engage the students and make the reading interactive and meaningful.”

Saunders added that he believes in the power of having excellent older readers show the importance of reading to younger emerging excellent readers. 

“There’s real power in that connection,” he said.

Maya Reifinger, left, and Lucy Cavanaugh read to fourth-graders at Lakeside Elementary
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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